By Keith Collier
EDITOR’S NOTE: Baltimore, where Ronjour Locke leads an urban church in the Brooklyn community, will be the site of the June 10-11 Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting. Baptist Press will publish its annual SBC preview package on Friday (April 25).
BALTIMORE (BP) — Ronjour Locke would meet his girlfriend Annie at McDonald’s for a breakfast date every Monday morning during college. He would grab a napkin as they talked to scribble down their brainstorm sessions filled with dreams and what-ifs for the future.
“We discussed if we were ever going to do ministry somewhere, where would it be?” Locke says of the morning conversations when they talked about where they might live and minister after they married and completed their studies at Washington Bible College near Washington, D.C.
Having gone on their first date and gotten engaged in Baltimore, they thought it would be a “pretty cool” place to settle.
“We knew the need was there,” Locke says, “and the diversity was something we were passionate about — being someplace where people from different walks of life and different backgrounds could worship the Lord together.”
In January 2012, the Lockes, their dreams and their four children made their way to one of Baltimore’s southernmost neighborhoods, Brooklyn, where Ronjour, a graduate of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, became pastor of First Baptist Church, the only Southern Baptist church in the area.
Baltimore encompasses more than 200 individual neighborhoods. Whether it is the trendy, up-and-coming Federal Hill filled with young urban professionals or the iconic Inner Harbor with its waterfront shops and restaurants, each neighborhood reflects a distinct history, culture and personality.
Brooklyn is an ethnically diverse, mostly low-income and lower-middle-class neighborhood. “I initially thought that this was an older neighborhood based on how many folks in our church lived in the area,” Ronjour says, “but I was wrong. It’s actually a lot more generationally diverse than I thought.”
Over the past few decades, government-constructed Section 8 housing left a densely populated neighborhood. “They put houses everywhere, squeezing them in all kinds of places,” Locke says, “… and of course, within them are people.”
FBC Brooklyn encompasses “people who are making good money and we have people who are struggling,” Locke says. “We’ve got some folks who have lost their jobs over the last couple of years, who cannot find a job for the life of them. We’ve got some folks that are homeless and we’re trying to help them.”
As with many urban communities, Brooklyn also suffers from crime, drugs and broken homes.
“You’ll have homes where the mom is there and you have, say, five or six kids, and each kid has a different dad. That’s not uncommon around here,” Locke says.
While the streets immediately surrounding the church are quiet, Locke says, “you go down and you’re going to see a lot more drugs, a lot more violence, a lot more stuff going on.”
“It’s really sad,” Annie Locke says. “It’s a lot of theft, but it’s usually a family member to a family member because of their addictions.”
“It’s sort of the personality of Brooklyn that we are the forgottens,” Ronjour says. “We’re not the cool Federal Hill. We’re not the Inner Harbor.”
Many of Brooklyn’s churches have closed in recent years, leaving an even greater need for Gospel-centered lights in the community.
“You have a community that changes around you, whether it be ethnic or generational diversity that comes in, and those churches met it with resistance,” Annie says.
“I think it’s a cultural shift,” Ronjour adds. “The churches that are closing their doors peaked around the 1970s or ’80s. They all had kids but didn’t have intentions of reaching their kids or their kids’ friends. It’s that whole cultural battle of ‘We’re not going to adapt.’ Now they’re shutting their doors. The church dies with their generation.”
Amid the challenges, the Lockes feel their time at Southwestern Seminary prepared them to serve and revitalize the church in Brooklyn.
Ronjour had taught school for a while in Maryland after graduating from college and then served on staff at a church in Hanover, Pa., where they began to explore seminary options.
“Annie and I flew down to Texas , and while we were there,” Ronjour says, “there was something about the culture that ‘We’re about the nations,’ which was much of a continuation from college for me. Southwestern was about getting the Gospel to every neighborhood and to every nation.”
Once on campus, Ronjour says Southwestern helped shape and solidify his understanding of the Gospel’s impact on the church, particularly “in terms of the primacy of the Word, the insistence on making disciples and shaping disciples with the very Gospel that was used to save them.”
“The Gospel that saves us is the Gospel that changes us. And the Gospel forms this church so that when we gather together, we worship God through Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. All of that is by means of the Gospel, by means of what God has accomplished for us. That affects the way that I parent, the way that I live with Annie, the way that I pastor.”
This Gospel-shaping influence has played a key role in Ronjour’s ministry in Brooklyn.
Once he arrived, he began asking himself, “What are my priorities as a pastor? I have to be the coolest guy in town? Or am I here to shepherd, to continue to say over and over and over again, ‘This is the Gospel. This is the one true living God — and this is where life happens, in Him’ — constantly pointing people and shepherding people toward Him.”
While he didn’t have a class on shepherding people with drug issues whose kids have been taken from them, Ronjour realizes Southwestern helped equip him with the answer.
“With all the violence and things I’ve encountered — people knocking on my door at 1 a.m. and saying they don’t have a place to live — I think, ‘What did I learn at seminary?’
“I learned that the Gospel is the power of God unto salvation.
“So how do I address these things with the Gospel? How do I address addictions with the Gospel? Love them, give them the help they need, and share the Gospel. With broken families and poverty and all these things that we have over here, it’s the Gospel that changes lives. So ground zero for us is, ‘Let’s be a church that’s about the Gospel.'”
Ronjour has been stirred by “watching people learn for the first time.”
“Nothing has been drastic in terms of change and transformation,” Ronjour says. “It’s just slowly but surely. It’s a systematic walking through the Bible and seeing how God is changing and shaping us.”
Annie agrees, adding that she never grows tired of “seeing Christ become more than enough for people,” more than their addictions, more than their broken relationships or sin-stained lives.
While there may have been things that a Texas seminary didn’t explicitly prepare Ronjour for in urban Baltimore, “at the same time, Southwestern prepared us for everything.”
Keith Collier is director of news and information for Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas (www.swbts.edu/campusnews). . Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).